The seminal EEF Guidance Report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants point out the often-unrealised negative impact of many TAs on attainment. This series of articles explores how one MAT uses Cooperative Learning to operationalise the seven recommendations found in that report.
On their dedicated page, the Education Endowment Foundation introduces the topic of teaching assistants thus:
“380,000 teaching assistants (TAs) are employed across the country, at an annual public cost of some £5 billion, but previous research had shown that in many schools (…) for students from poorer backgrounds the impact of TAs was too often negative. “(Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants).
To drive the point home, TAs cost ¼ of an average school budget, TAs are present in most classes, and, furthermore, often handle interventions with vulnerable SEN and PPG pupils who have a disproportionate impact on results. In small schools, a bad day for a certain child during those fateful hours of SATs may spell doom.
Fortunately, the text continues:
“However, EEF trials have demonstrated that, when they are well-trained and used in structured settings with high-quality support and training, TAs can make a noticeable positive impact on pupil learning.”
Much to their credit, Evolution Academy Trust of Norfolk have been among the first MATs to give this issue their undivided attention, putting money towards professional staff surveys and following up with tailored training to turn the recommendations of the EEF research into cost-effective practice that will increase staff engagement and outcomes for children.
This is, of course, where Cooperative Learning comes in.
Before we investigate the Cooperative Learning angle, this is a brief summary of the seven recommendations. Items I-IV cover class room context, V-VI cover out-of-class interventions, VII discusses the connection between the two.
I. TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils. Systematic review of the roles of both teachers and TAs is needed.
II. TAs should add value to what teachers do, not replace them. If TAs do have a direct instructional role it is recommended that these interventions supplement the teacher and are kept brief, intensive, and structured (see V).
III. TAs should help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning, e.g. concentrate on helping pupils develop ownership of tasks, rather than task completion.
IV. TAs should be fully prepared for their role in the classroom by providing sufficient time for TA training and for teachers and TAs to meet out of class to enable the necessary lesson preparation and feedback.
V. TAs should deliver high-quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions. (This is where we find a consistent impact on attainment of up to four additional months’ progress).
VI. Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction. As a minimum, sessions should be brief, by TAs who are professionally trained, follow a plan with clear objectives, include real-time assessment, and connections should be made between the intervention and classroom teaching.
VII. Ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching and structured interventions.
– TA’s brainstorm output, Costessey Junior School, Evolution Academy Trust, 13 July 2017.
As can be garnered from the above quote, much to their credit, our TAs raised all of the seven points ad verbatim during the opening brainstorm. It was impossible not to remark that the EEF might have saved all that time and money invested in education’s top PhDs by simply asking the TAs what they thought might be a good idea. Alas…
The concern that TAs might not only not improve outcomes, or even decrease them, is not actually new. In 2009, a government-funded study by the IoE was headlined “Pupils receiving help ‘do worse'” by the BBC. Given that the average school shelves out a quarter of their often desperate budgets on TAs and the ever increasing focus on measurable results, one would think that everything else would be put on hold until the issue was resolved.
Added to the obvious problem of investment-vs-outcome are the “soft” issues of TAs often feeling disenfranchised, undervalued or downright abused, or, adversely, are so much a part of the current school fabric that any changes their roles and responsibilities is met with passive obstruction. In some extreme cases, they actively undermine teachers:
“I’ve had several TAs like this – worst when they have a colleague in the room and they can exchange “eye rolling” glances at each other whilst you are teaching!”
– Anonymous teacher, TES Forum thread, Please help…problems with teaching assistant, 2010.
It is a strange balance, as there seems to be a tacit understanding they can get away with almost anything, including scuttling outcomes, because they are straddled with the pupils and the work no-one else wants to touch – at an absolute minimum wage. There is little wonder some feel undervalued.
Assuming Corbyn fails to pull the brakes on the neoliberal orthodoxy, the next government step will likely be to fire all teaching assistants, UK wide, and throw the £5 billion they currently cost English schools at trained teachers.
To put this into perspective, three antagonistic TAs who scupper school improvement cost as much as a fully qualified teacher or SEN specialist who might, for example, be used to halve the number of pupils in a difficult class, making dedicated TAs irrelevant.
However, the negative impact on the school community in itself would make any headteacher think twice before pulling the trigger on something so radical. Fortunately, the EEF Guidance notes that recent findings indicate TAs may add 3-4 months to pupils’ yearly progress – if given proper training and support.
In summary, school leaders who want fast, high-impact improvement using their current resources need to look no further than their Teaching Assistants. Enter Evolution Academy Trust, Norfolk.
Aside from the impact on TAs, adopting Cooperative Learning as a Trust-wide approach presents MATs with a cost-effective, DfE/EEF-recommended, and legally compliant way to spend its ample pupil premium funds on benefiting every child with 5-8 months of progress per pupil per year. (This is Cooperative Learning on its own, without the 3-4 months of additional progress noted above).
Some key considerations:
With a view to increase understanding of TAs own perceptions of their role, and to empower them to improve outcomes, I was requested by Mr Tony Hull, CEO of Evolution Academy Trust, to tailor and present four Cooperative Learning sessions to TAs in July 2017 under the title “The Real Value of TAs.” I was then further to consider the implications of evidence gathered in these sessions for a Cooperative Learning programme to support the seven EEF recommendations for the MAT’s seven schools.The objectives of these events were:
All slides and handouts were tailored and branded for the event, and effort was expended to ensuring a light-hearted, enjoyable ethos. Each session fielded up to six tables of TAs.
Each session ended with delegates giving rated responses to three questions and providing comments on an anonymous feedback sheet. 77% of attendees’ responses were either positive or very positive about the events, which unveiled the vast majority of EAT TAs as a very valuable potential resource who feel they should be appreciated, and who are eager to bring their ideas and skills to bear.
Given that TAs are sometimes “a notoriously difficult bunch,” as one headteacher once confided to me during a lesson observation, 77% positive feedback was a great deal higher than expected.
Leaving TAs to flounder – or, worse, to actively impair teaching and learning – is likely a significant contributing factor to poor outcomes in any school. As TAs consume as much as a quarter of school budgets, including PPG, ensuring their positive impact on attainment is an obligation for responsible leadership.
The following installments of this article will explain how Cooperative Learning cheaply and effectively may be used to operationalise each of the seven EEF recommendations in turn.
For schools considering Cooperative Learning, following this thread is a must, as I am currently dedicating TA training elements into all standard CPD courses at no further cost.
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This brief article explores how Cooperative Learning seamlessly integrates Feedback, making it possible to reach a total of 8 months progress per pupil per year with an investment of as little as £5 in one-off costs.
(This article is a natural follow-up to EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss, and of special interest to attendees of Charlie Hebdo in Luton and last week’s MTA event at Berrymede Junior School in London).
From the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit definition:
Feedback is information given to the learner or teacher about the learner’s performance relative to specific learning goals or outcomes, to redirect or refocus either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.
Information given to the learner
Feedback can “be about the output of the activity, the process of the activity, or the student’s management of their learning.” These three correspond roughly to 1. evaluation of a product, 2. formative assessment and even 3. self-regulation (which is a separate strategy from the Toolkit) respectively, all of which are ideally suited to Cooperative Learning activities.
First of all, because of the reflection and negotiation required by these three is built into any social activity, feedback is implicit. The teacher has only to adjust the volume or focus by dropping in questions.
Assume in the Charlie Hebdo lesson plan (see below), we have reached the stage where our students present their core arguments to partners, before a Live Opponent. Repeat that step a couple of times, but give the ancillary task: “Before switching to a new partner, tell each other how to improve your next presentation.” Then drive sub-objectives by giving detail: “Remember how we discussed pausing at commas and full stops when reading out? Same thing here. You do not want to rush through.” or “Is there a way to make the language more concise.” etc.
Remember that having the recipient writing down the feedback, and having the advisor sign it, again ensures accountability for both parties.
Secondly, because of the tightly controlled organizing of peers and teams means the teacher is able to control the who gives feedback to whom – negating the usual perils of less organised group work. This is especially important if you want to leverage Higher with Lower Ability Pupils. I hope to write more on that in a later post. In the interim, you will find some details on equal participation here.
Information given to the teacher
As for feedback to the teacher, there is obviously the information automatically culled on the learning process, implicit in all proper Cooperative Learning. Here, first port of call is again unobtrusive monitoring. Added to this is the activities staged with feedback as the specific product.
As an example, I refer to the newsletter eCL#3: Charlie’s Angels or Sympathy for the Devils… RE Lesson Plan on the Paris attacks. Attendees of last weeks MTA event at Berrymede in London will recognise the many levels information can be culled in written form – notetaking before presenting, note-taking during interviewing, during listening to other pupil’s presentation, as well as any other way one normally secures written evidence; with Cooperative Learning, it is never an either/or. The end of the plan also gives examples of homework.
Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning across all age groups. Generally, research in schools has focused particularly on its impact on English, mathematics and, to a lesser extent, science and recent meta-analysis of the impact of formative assessment on writing indicates gains of 8 months’ progress are achievable. Given feedback is integrated implicitly and may be explicitly organised with superior effect this makes structural Cooperative Learning exceptionally effective.
According to Sutton Trust research, some studies reporting lower impact indicate that it is challenging to improve the quality of feedback in the classroom. But with Cooperative Learning, because the individual accountability makes feedback implicit in the Cooperative Learning activities themselves with no further preparation from the teacher.
In a recent study, some teachers initially believed that the programme was unnecessary as they already used feedback effectively. For such teachers, Cooperative Learning would simply be a tool to further increase focus and effect of their feedback.
Working explicitly with feedback however does require some delineation – as I often warn teachers is that Cooperative Learning will give what you put into it. For example, the literature on feedback draws an essential distinction between feedback targeted at the self (‘Great sentence; you are a superstar!’) and feedback which promotes self-regulation and independent learning (‘You have learned some adverbs today. Check if you could add some adverbs to improve your sentences.’).
It was not clear in observed lessons that this distinction was consistently understood by teachers, and this is important because Cooperative Learning will engage students in both cases, but the outcome is very different. Precisely because Cooperative Learning multiplies the effect of the input, it is recommended that staff be provided with a large number of examples illustrating the variety of types of feedback.
This research is based on whole school intervention, involving 10 schools and around 4,000 pupils at a cost of around £88,000. The cost per pupil is approximately £22 according to the Sutton Trust research. Referring back to the previous articles, where we mentioned the price of the basic Skills & Mastery as less than £5 for a collaborative learning programme normally priced at £40, consider saving an additional sum by restricting feedback CPD to best practice questioning techniques, rather than a full scale package.
Evidence culled from the action research project Anglican Schools Partnership and Effective Feedback and Teaching and Learning Toolkit.